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Destination Pickleball

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The sport of pickleball has burst into the mainstream from pockets all over the country—and commercial businesses and home developers are taking notice.

Perhaps the most accommodating businesses are those in the hospitality industry—hoteliers and RV communities, where pickleball isn’t just another activity to offer guests but an integral part of bringing in new guests.

At the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, pickleball has been elevated to the heights of luxury rarely found elsewhere. Not only did the resort convert three of its tennis courts into 12 pickleball courts, each court comes with all the amenities the resort has to offer.

“Our guests have access to our locker rooms, great restrooms, connectivity to the rest of the resort, sandwiches, cocktails, whatever they could wish for,” says Steve Hart, General Manager. “We built these courts so players could be part of the resort experience and have total resort amenities, whether it’s just a few folks who want to play or a large round robin tournament. The real sweet spot is to be able to continue the love of the sport for families that come here because of our courts, or people who are curious because they’ve heard about it and want to attend clinics or lessons.”

Hart says the transition toward pickleball as an offering at the resort was thoroughly researched and decisively implemented. The process was initiated by guests asking about the sport. “It all started with a couple people inquiring, so we began to do our own research,” Hart says. “We saw it was really taking off. I wanted to see the coolest places in Phoenix that had pickleball and then looked at the best resorts in the world and found none of them had anything.”

Hart says although many places claim to have pickleball, they just tape off tennis courts. As a result, he insisted that JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa do it right. “When we saw the energy and excitement, age levels and family play, we saw an opportunity. JW is 15 years old and by all accounts one of the great resorts in the country. We have stunning golf, a fabulous spa, the best pools anywhere, gorgeous grounds. How could we compromise pickleball at this resort? Instead of having a court or two to accommodate somebody who may want to play, we thought we’d add pickleball as one of the key positioning points for the JW Desert Ridge. We built 12 world-class, dedicated pickleball courts as part of our tennis complex, which is now a racquet complex.”

The JW Marriott’s pickleball courts also offer players spectacular views of the gorgeous Arizonian desert. Hart says players can witness extraordinary sunsets from the courts. What’s more, the courts have already been available to regional players for tournament play. Hart says the regional seniors tournament was recently held on site and communication between the resort and the local pickleball organizations is ongoing regarding future events and tournaments.

On the other side of the country, in Florida, Sundial Beach Resort and Spa has long been a staple that prides itself on its history of tennis amenities.Brett Lindsay, Director of Sales and Marketing for Sundial, said that like other resorts, the addition of pickleball facilities was an amalgamation of guest inquiry and managerial recognition of the growing sport.

“It was both, actually. Sundial Resort and Sanibel have a long history of tennis. When new ownership came in, they revitalized and realized the value of pickleball as an added amenity, even more so,” Lindsay said. “They realized that pickleball was growing fast. It was a perfect fit for our demographics and our climate, so we set up a dedicated pickleball facility.”

Sundial boasts the largest pickleball facility in the area, complete with 12 Plexicushion courts and stadium seating. Resort guests receive complimentary court access and equipment rentals. Lessons and clinics are offered at the beautiful waterfront facility, voted the Best Pickleball in Southwest Florida. In addition to being a boon for guests, the facilities are also available to the public for open and tournament play.

On the residential side, Minto Communities, developer of communities such as the new Latitude Margaritaville and the award-winning Isles of Collier Preserve in Naples, includes pickleball courts in developments because the demand has grown exponentially.

William Bullock, Senior Vice President of Minto Communities, says pickleball has been on his company’s radar since around 2009. “In the 20 years I’ve been involved in development, you can see where things are trending and where they’re headed. A great example is how the trend shifted from shuffleboard to bocce,” he explains. “In 2009, we acquired Sun City Center and sat down with the board and association members. This is a community of 17,000 units, and they told us they wanted things like a dog park. They didn’t want a playground. Then they said they wanted pickleball, and I said, ‘What’s pickleball?’ When they explained it and why it applied to the demographic, it was obvious it would be a trendsetting sport. We helped convert tennis courts and, within a year, had dozens of pickleball courts. That real-world experience was validation for us.”

Since then, pickleball courts have been included in Minto’s Isles of Collier Preserve in Naples, LakePark in Port St. Lucie, and the new Latitude Margaritaville communities in Daytona Beach and Hilton Head.

Residents of Isles of Collier Preserve have their own pickleball courts and club—and compete in area tournaments regularly. Residents simply walk through a gate that connects the community to East Naples Park where there are championship-level, covered pickleball courts.

Bullock says not only has Minto embraced pickleball where it thrives, it has also embraced the pickleball community by sponsoring events that are important to the players. The company was the title sponsor for the 2016 Inaugural US Open Pickleball Championships and continues to be a title sponsor of the event. “There’s been no wavering on our zeal for the sport,” says Bullock. “We’ve seen the US Open grow from a few hundred people to more than 5,000. It’s growing by leaps and bounds, and it’s because of how accessible the sport is. It’s intergenerational and crosses all boundaries.”

As far as the communities being built, Minto’s enthusiasm for pickleball will continue for the foreseeable future. Bullock says the company’s strategic marketing surveys continue to show pickleball’s popularity in the top 10 out of 20 athletic activities that customers and interested buyers want to see in their neighborhoods. “We’ve seen golf go from being in the top 5 to 15 of 20, but pickleball just ticks up the ladder every time we survey people,” he says. “It’s always in the top 10 or better.”

On the other end of the country, for communities like Robson Ranch, located in the southwestern Arizona desert, pickleball courts have been a standard recreational amenity for some time.

Win Oppel, Vice President of the Robson Ranch Pickleball Club, says not only did Robson have pickleball courts when he looked into the community more than four years ago, they’re actively discussing ongoing expansions as the community grows. “We have pickleball courts at all of the Robson facilities in Arizona and have been discussing them during the buildout here,” Oppel says. “We have a membership of more than 300 and just closed on our 1,000th house, so it’s a pretty big draw.”

Oppel says sports like tennis are no longer bringing people to the community and, in fact, tennis courts remain all but vacant. “The tennis courts don’t get any use, not like they did 10 years ago,” he says. “With the pickleball program, we constantly have players out there. At night, we have lit courts and run a couples program in the evening.”

While Oppel has been a resident for more than four years, he was an avid pickleball player prior to discovering Robson. Oppel had been coming to the area in his RV with his family for five years before looking to put down roots. “The pickleball community is fairly active in Casa Grande, and most RV parks have some sort of pickleball program going on,” he says. “I learned to play, and Robson’s courts were a big attraction for us, a big piece of our decision to move here. There are 16 courts, a dedicated program, and the management of Robson is extremely supportive of the program.”

With two in-house tournaments a year, Robson residents play amongst themselves. Other tournaments throughout the year open up to neighboring communities. “Our Sixth Annual Pickleball Tournament drew more than 400 people—100 from inside the community and the rest from four or five other communities in the area,” Oppel says. “They’ll play here one day and Palm Creek or Mission Royale at other times.”

The goodwill generated by local and regional interplay is giving back to the community in spades. Robson is home to two pickleball ambassadors, Mickie Storckman and Larry Kraus. Residents in the community travel to local high schools to teach pickleball lessons several times a week. There’s also an official outreach program in place. Oppel says every pickleball event typically has a benefit for the community involved. “Tournaments usually are where we give back the most,” he says. “At Christmas, we had an in-house event where all the money raised went to the Eloy Fire District’s Children’s Christmas Fund, which gives gifts for disadvantaged children.”

As pickleball takes the country by storm, dozens of resorts and communities are jumping on the pickleball train—to the delight of their guests and residents.

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